Black Lives, Policing, and Historical Memory

I hope I don’t get killed. (Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

On April 8, 2018, Danville police responded to a domestic disturbance between a man and a woman. The woman accused the man, Juan Markee Jones, of assault. Leaving the scene and followed by police, Jones drove to a brush-covered area a short distance away. He exited the car, appearing on the police body camera video to not immediately acknowledge officers’ orders to show his hands. Police reacted by attempting to taser Jones, but “did not make effective contact.” According to the Danville police report, the twenty-five-year-old man “suddenly turned on the officers in a threatening manner” with his hands extended. He was then fatally shot by the police. On Tuesday, April 10, a representative for the Virginia State Police confirmed “that a weapon was not recovered at the scene.”

Police observations about Jones’ alleged “threatening manner” reverberated in local and national accounts of the shooting. The next day, more than one hundred community members met at the steps of the Danville Municipal Building, calling for police transparency about the events leading to Jones’ death. While local news described the group as “storm[ing]” the building, video recordings of the demonstration offer an alternate narrative. Some protestors carried handmade signs. Some stood hand-in-hand and prayed. As a whole, the group convened to grieve as a community.

Danville, a southern Virginia city with a population of roughly 43,000 residents, is no stranger to police violence as the municipal police department reckons with its tense relationship with the greater community. In fact, the shooting took place the day before the department’s scheduled community engagement walk as part of Chief of Police Scott Booth’s initiative “to build public trust and develop positive relationships between officers and community members.” However, calls for trust and transparency remain futile without a critical understanding of the history of Jim Crow and policing in the final capital of the Confederacy.

While conducting a NAACP membership drive in rural Virginia in 1941, celebrated civil rights activist and Virginia native Ella Baker observed that in Danville police brutality and voter registration served as the most pressing issues impacting the local community. Situated in the Virginia black belt, Jim Crow ideology ran deep in the city and impacted every aspect of daily life. In the mid-twentieth century, Dan River Mills, “one of the largest textile mills in the South,” employed approximately 12,000 people, 1,100 of whom were Black.1 A booklet published by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) reported the highest position held by a Black mill employee was “as machinist” and the maximum weekly wage paid was between $75.00 and $80.00.2 In 1960, the southside city remained entirely segregated with limited action undertaken by the NAACP to confront racist social and economic policies and police brutality experienced by Black residents.

Inspired by the Birmingham, Alabama, campaign, Danville became the site of a coordinated nonviolent demonstration against police brutality and municipal discrimination practices in June 1963 led by the Danville Christian Progressive Association, the Danville Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC. Together, the Danville SCLC chapter, headed by Reverend Lendall W. Chase, and the Danville Christian Progressive Association, led by Reverends Lawrence Campbell and Alexander I. Dunlap, signaled a break from the historical position of the NAACP as the center of national civil rights efforts as they led the charge locally against segregation.

Prior to the events of 1963, Black city residents engaged in a series of political protests that targeted voter disenfranchisement, legal segregation of public facilities, police brutality, and unemployment. In 1962, Campbell, Dunlap, Chase, and others filed an integration suit to enforce the integration of the city’s schools, hospitals, cemeteries, and public housing. Danville civil rights leaders also took aim at the segregated public library. Rather than integrate following a court order, the Danville Library ceased operations between September and November 1960. Civil rights demonstrators in Danville coordinated a sit-in at the city library to confront head-on the loopholes created and the blatant refusal by white municipal and state government officials to equally enforce federal law. When forced to reopen, “the Danville Library was one of the few free public libraries in the United States where a one-year card cost $2.50” for city residents.

In May 1963, Campbell and Dunlap led marches to city hall in attempts to meet with Mayor Julian Stinson to discuss desegregation efforts and Black political and civic representation in the city. The protests were initially met with little police contact or media coverage. Reverend Lawrence Campbell recalled that the city’s newspaper, the Danville Register & Bee, “suppressed coverage” of the demonstration from May 31-June 4, 1963.”

However, on June 5, 1963, white authorities unleashed a wave of violence. That day, Campbell, Dunlap, and several students attempted to meet with the city mayor and were denied. Trained in nonviolent strategy, the two clergymen “sat down on the floor” to wait for the mayor’s arrival and the “[p]olice rushed them, pushed [Rev. A.I.] Dunlap down a flight of stairs, and choked a young Negro girl, who, not properly schooled in non-violence, responded abruptly and swung at a policeman with her pocketbook.” After the police attacks, the student “and the two ministers were jailed” and all three faced a $5,000.00 bond each for “inciting to riot.” Reverends Campbell and Dunlap were charged additionally with “inciting or encouraging a minor to commit a misdemeanor.”3

Police and the grand jury in making their sentencing recommendation drew upon a slavery-era Virginia statute referred to as John Brown’s Law that made illegal any actions inspiring “acts of violence and war [by Black people] against the white population.” By using this statute against the three civil rights demonstrators, the grand jury and white authorities in Danville sent a powerful message to potential demonstrators, equating efforts by local leaders for racial equality to a slave uprising. Other leaders would encounter this charge as the Danville protests progressed. For white authorities, actions by Black people and their meaning remained defined and embodied by white emotions, understandings, and interpretations of Black bodies.

The Danville campaign did not end on June 5, 1963. On Bloody Monday, June 10, 1963, activists marched to city hall and were met with high-pressure hoses under the order of Chief of Police Eugene G. McCain. Reporting for SNCC, Dorothy Zellner described the scene:

Nightstick-wielding police and deputized garbage collectors smashed into the group, clubbing Negroes who were bunched for safety against parked cars. Some were washed under the cars; others were clubbed after the water knocked them down. Bodies lay on the street, drenched and bloody.

Bedrooms transformed into hospital rooms where demonstrators received home remedies, treatments for their wounds, and meals made with produce from neighborhood gardens. A few doctors traveled to designated safe houses to treat the wounds of demonstrators who “were not seen in the hospitals.” A longtime resident of Danville and participant in the movement, Sheree Via remembered, “[T]hey would bring in demonstrators… afterwards if they had been beat up and bloodied and need[ed] to be sewn up for cuts. You know they had been beat up by police and the National Guard and everyone else to be honest.”4

In response to the Danville movement and its growing interest among groups like SNCC, Danville police and judicial authorities devised a strategy known as the “Danville formula.” This strategy made use of existing legal statutes and city ordinances for the purpose of intimidating and suppressing Black protest. Charges ranged from trespassing, contempt, and resisting arrest to aiding in the delinquency of a minor and parading without a permit. High school student Thurman Echols participated in the June 10 protest and was arrested by the police. Urged by the police, Echols called his mother to ask for bail. When Echols’ mother arrived at the jail, “she was promptly arrested on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” She used her one call to contact her husband who the police also arrested for the same charge.

Mass arrests, exorbitant bail, legal costs, and increasing restrictions posed by police brought the Danville movement to a standstill. Limited victories included the hiring of Black police officers and a city council member. In her online exhibit, Mapping Local Knowledge: Danville, Virginia 1945-1975, Emma C. Edmunds explores the lives and experiences of those involved in the 1963 movement and notes for some city residents “the wounds from that turbulent time have not healed.” Historical legacies of the 1963 Danville movement endure as Black community members confront and reclaim repackaged narratives about “threatening” Black bodies entrenched in media and public readings about the fatal shooting of Juan Markee Jones and the Movement for Black Lives.

  1.  Arthur Kinoy, Rights On Trial: The Odyssey of a People’s Lawyer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 181.
  2.  Dorothy Miller Zellner, “Danville, Virginia,” SNCC Pamphlet, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
  3. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are taken from Dorothy Miller Zellner, “Danville, Virginia,” SNCC Pamphlet, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
  4.  Sheree Via, interview by Bruce Smith, May 19, 2012, transcript, Desegregation of Virginia Education Project, Patricia W. and J. Douglas Perry Library, Norfolk, VA.
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Samantha Bryant

Samantha Bryant is a Ph.D. in candidate in the department of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She specializes in twentieth-century African American history and politics and U.S. cultural history. Her research explores how black and white southerners understood and navigated racial justice and social change in news media amid the modern civil rights and Black Power movements.

Comments on “Black Lives, Policing, and Historical Memory

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    Great analysis and prose. We need to understand this cancer that afflicts our people and continue to fight to eradicate it from the social norm. Honestly, I don’t think we will ever be treated with dignity and respect in this God forsaken country… Ase’.

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